Nordic Nirvana for working parents
There’s more to Scandinavian childcare than much-envied affordability
Prof Tine Rostgaard Department of Political Science, Aalborg University in Denmark, in the playground in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
With the cost of full-time childcare almost like a second mortgage in many an Irish household, it is no surprise that the subsidised nature of the Scandinavian system provokes envy.
How many times have you heard couples here say that “the figures just don’t add up”, as one of them, most likely the mother, decides to give up paid employment because the second salary is swallowed up in paying someone else to mind their children.
The bottom line is starker for lone parents.
Returning to full-time work costs recipients of the One Parent Family Payment an astoundingly prohibitive ¤276 a week – due to childcare costs and lost allowances – according to research last year by the Vincentian Partnership.
Compare this with Denmark, where parents spend 6-8 per cent of their disposable income on childcare. All children are entitled to full-time daycare, for which parents cannot be charged more than 25 per cent of the cost.
So the maximum amount they pay for a child is, on average, ¤420 a month for full-time nursery care up to the age of three and ¤277 for kindergarten (aged three to five) – with a decreasing scale for those on lower incomes.
And if you have two children, you pay the more expensive daycare place in full but get a 50 per cent discount on the second.
But the Scandinavian system which we covet is about much more than just affordability. It has the wellbeing and development of the child at its centre, with layers of parental leave and other measures that have far-reaching effects on gender equality and work-life balance.
“We have a belief and culture that it is best for women to return to the labour market and also that it is best for children to attend daycare,” says Prof Tine Rostgaard of the Department of Political Science at Copenhagen’s Aalborg University, who was in Dublin last week to give the keynote address at the conference,
Scandinavian childcare – Making it Happen
It was organised by Barnardos, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Start Strong and Open, which represents lone parent groups, who are combining forces to lobby for much greater investment here in early childcare and education.
There is no angst-ridden debate among Danish women, it seems, about whether they would be better off at home making cupcakes with little Johnny rather than dropping him off at daycare.
The take-up figures speak for themselves: 90 per cent of children aged one to two attend nurseries and 98 per cent of children aged three to five are in kindergarten.
“The other side of the coin is the best interests of the child,” Rostgaard tells The Irish Times . “Research shows it improves educational attainment, and helps with language, integration into society and socialisation.”
Maintaining high quality in services offered by all the 98 municipalities is the issue that exercises Danish parents most. There is concern that some are reducing the kindergarten age to two and a half, to save money through lower child-staff ratios, and only half are now offering a hot meal at daycare services.